An attorney’s report examining more than 7,700 lawsuits filed by an Indianapolis-based trucking school in just two Marion County township small-claims courts alleges systemic abuses that resulted in thousands of judgments against people who may never have stepped foot in the county or the state.
“I tried to get as much data as I could to establish there are real problems here,” said Jeffrey C. Boulden, who provided copies of his report this week to key judges, Supreme Court justices, the Indiana attorney general’s office and media outlets.
Boulden asserts Driver Solutions LLC filed 7,711 suits in Franklin and Warren township small-claims courts from 2008 through April 30, 2012. That total equals about 148 cases per month – or more than six cases per business day – predominantly against driver trainees nationwide. The company has campuses around the country.
Boulden reviewed 25 percent of those case files as a sample and found 93 percent of the sample cases were filed against defendants who lived outside Indiana, which he claims violates the Fair Debt Collections Practices Act. The federal law regarding venue requires such collection actions be filed in the jurisdiction where a contract was signed or where a consumer resides.
The report also claims defendants in numerous cases were improperly served notice through standard U.S. mail, and that about 70 percent of judgments exceeded the statutory small-claims cap of $6,000. Boulden says any such judgments should be voided.
Indiana Court of Appeals Judge John Baker is among the judges who received a copy of Boulden’s examination of Driver Solutions LLC. “It’s pretty sad,” Baker said after his initial review of the unsolicited report titled, “The Poplicola Report on the Marion County Small Claims Court.”
Baker, along with Senior Judge Betty Barteau of the Court of Appeals, headed the Supreme Court Task Force that in May of 2012 issued its Report on the Marion County Small Claims Courts in response to criticism of widespread abuses including perceptions of “forum shopping.”
The township courts since have instituted some reforms, but Baker said lawmakers have failed to respond to the task force report’s recommendations, including a proposal that the township courts be incorporated into Marion Superior Courts. From that standpoint, he said, Boulden’s report isn’t surprising.
“This may well cover times before some significant changes were made, but I am frustrated that notwithstanding our efforts in getting the (task force) report out, there has been no reaction from the General Assembly,” Baker said.
“I’m appreciative of his efforts,” Baker said. Coupled with the task force report, past Indianapolis Bar Association reports of small-claims problems and widespread criticism of court practices, the report joins a body of evidence that “indicates we need some structural change.”
Boulden said Driver Solutions charged a standard tuition of $5,995 for a driver-training course lasting a few weeks, often financing the training with no upfront cost to students. He said company filings often sought to collect interest on defaults as well, pushing the claim past the $6,000 cap.
Attorney Brian Alsip, who filed many of the claims for Driver Solutions during the timeframe Boulden examined, did not return telephone messages seeking comment.
Driver Solutions attorney Garrett Lowe provided the following statement from Driver Holdings LLC CEO Michael Benkert:
“While we have not received a copy of the report in question, I am pleased with our commitment to providing career skills and employment opportunities within the trucking industry. In the past year alone, we have assisted over 4,000 individuals in obtaining gainful employment.”
Lowe said the statement would be the extent of the company’s comments regarding the report at this time.
Warren Township Small Claims Judge Garland Graves said he had seen the report and was reviewing Driver Solutions cases filed after he took the bench in 2011.
“I am concerned,” Graves said, and he noted the township no longer allows service via regular mail. But he has concerns, too, about Boulden’s report. “A lot of incomplete information was put forth,” Graves said. For instance, he said some suits might have been properly served, but notice of service could be confidential because it contained Social Security numbers.
“He never contacted me as a judge to address any concerns he may have,” Graves said.
Graves noted Driver Solutions contracts carried a venue clause in which parties agree that any litigation would be filed in a Marion County township court. But he said he couldn’t say whether that provision might violate federal collections law.
“The federal (Fair) Debt Collection (Practices) Act is something I don’t have jurisdiction over,” Graves said. That’s an issue someone could bring in federal court, he said.
Franklin Township Judge John A. Kitley Jr. could not be reached for comment. Calls to the court during business hours Friday were not answered, and a recording said messages could not be left because the court’s voice mailbox was full.
Boulden has been a legal aid attorney for a number of years and said he became familiar with Driver Solutions when representing a dozen or more defendants. He acknowledged the time he devoted to his examination of case files in the township courts cost him his job and took a personal toll, but he said he felt compelled to compile his findings in an attempt to right wrongs.
“I felt my responsibility as a legal-aid-type lawyer was to do this kind of work because no one else was going to do it,” Boulden said. He said of his report, “It is the single best piece of lawyering/advocacy I’ve done in 24 years.”